Learning and memory difficulties after environmental exposure to waterways containing toxin-producing Pfiesteria or Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates

Lancet. 1998 Aug 15;352(9127):532-9. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(98)02132-1.


Background: At the beginning of autumn, 1996, fish with "punched-out" skin lesions and erratic behaviour associated with exposure to toxins produced by Pfiesteria piscicida or Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellate species were seen in the Pocomoke River and adjacent waterways on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, USA. In August, 1997, fish kills associated with Pfiesteria occurred in these same areas. People who had had contact with affected waterways reported symptoms, including memory difficulties, which raises questions about the human-health impact of environmental exposure to Pfiesteria toxins.

Methods: We assessed 24 people who had been exposed. We collected data on exposure history and symptoms, did a complete medical and laboratory assessment (13 people), and carried out a neuropsychological screening battery. Performance on neuropsychological measures was compared with a matched control group.

Results: People with high exposure were significantly more likely than occupationally matched controls to complain of neuropsychological symptoms (including new or increased forgetfulness); headache; and skin lesions or a burning sensation of skin on contact with water. No consistent physical or laboratory abnormalities were found. However, exposed people had significantly reduced scores on the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning and Stroop Color-Word tests (indicative of difficulties with learning and higher cognitive function), and the Grooved Pegboard task. There was a dose-response effect with the lowest scores among people with the highest exposure. By 3-6 months after cessation of exposure, all those assessed had test scores that had returned to within normal ranges.

Interpretation: People with environmental exposure to waterways in which Pfiesteria toxins are present are at risk of developing a reversible clinical syndrome characterised by difficulties with learning and higher cognitive functions. Risk of illness is directly related to degree of exposure, with the most prominent symptoms and signs occurring among people with chronic daily exposure to affected waterways.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Dinoflagellida / physiology*
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Female
  • Fish Diseases / parasitology*
  • Fishes / parasitology
  • Headache / etiology
  • Humans
  • Learning Disabilities / etiology*
  • Male
  • Maryland
  • Memory Disorders / etiology*
  • Neuropsychology
  • Protozoan Infections*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sensation Disorders / etiology
  • Skin Diseases / etiology
  • Verbal Learning / physiology
  • Water / parasitology*


  • Water